WASHINGTON – House leaders cleared the way for a vote Thursday on renewing the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act after granting conservatives a chance to loosen requirements for bilingual ballots and restrictions on Southern states.
The changes were not expected to be added to the legislation, which would renew for 25 years a law widely considered the centerpiece of the civil rights movement. The original legislation abolished racist voting practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
Forty years have passed, but a dozen House hearings in the last year uncovered evidence that congressional districts still are sometimes drawn to water down the influence of ethnic communities and that minority voters are in some places disenfranchised.
House leaders scheduled a vote last month but then canceled it when a group of conservatives — mostly Southerners — said the bill singled out their states for Justice Department scrutiny without giving them credit for strides on civil rights.
Hours of negotiations in recent days yielded an agreement, approved 8-3 Wednesday by the Rules Committee, to allow votes on amendments proposing the changes pushed by the objectors.
Immigration and civil rights groups and lawmakers who support them are mobilized for a fight over what they see as the latest in a long history of attempts to undercut burgeoning political influence of racial minorities.
"I hope the House will see this for what it is and vote against these amendments," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement.
Late Wednesday, the supporters got some firepower from big business. Tyco, Comcast and Disney released letters to congressional leaders urging renewal of the act.
"Comcast's credo is to respect and reflect the customers, communities and cultures we serve," wrote executive vice president David L. Cohen, who noted that his company serves 21 million customers in 36 states and the District of Columbia. "We believe our support for the Voting Rights Act reauthorization is an important part of this commitment."
The amendments' sponsors — who hail from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida and Alabama — say the renewal as written would unfairly single out their states for another quarter of a century.
The amendment with the most appeal, sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, would renew the law for a decade rather than 25 years.
Others would strip the law of requirements to provide multilingual ballots in districts with high populations of non-English speakers, and change the formula for which states are subject to the Justice Department oversight.
House passage would send the measure to the Senate, where the leaders support the legislation. But some senators were voicing the same objections as their counterparts in the House.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Wednesday questioned why Congress needed to act now, when the act doesn't expire until next year.